Breast Cyst vs. Tumor: What’s the Difference?

If you feel a lump while you’re doing your monthly breast self-check, you might automatically jump to the worst possible conclusion: you have a tumor. However, not all breast changes are breast cancer. What you’re feeling may very well be a cyst. Learn the difference in a breast cyst vs. tumor from River’s Edge Hospital & Clinic.

Breast Cyst

While it may feel like a lump, a breast cyst is a sac filled with fluid. These are typically harmless and small, and you may have one or multiple cysts. They are caused by fluid buildup in the breast glands. Cysts usually start very small and grow as fluid continues to build.

Cysts are not typically associated with a higher risk of cancer, and they normally don’t turn into cancer. It may feel like a round moveable lump that is tender to the touch. According to the American Cancer Society, breast cysts often appear in women in their 30s or 40s, but they can develop in a woman at any age. You can’t prevent breast cysts.

If you have a cyst in your breast that bothers you, your healthcare provider may want to drain the fluid in the cyst. Cysts are usually drained with a needle in your provider’s office.

Breast Tumor

A breast tumor is also called breast cancer. After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in United States women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The symptoms of a breast tumor can include:

  • Change in shape or size of the breast
  • Irritation or dimpling of the skin of the breast
  • Lump in the breast or underarm
  • Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
  • Nipple pain or pulling in of the nipple
  • Pain in the breast
  • Redness or flaky skin on the nipple or other part of the breast
  • Thickening or swelling of a part of the breast

You are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer if you are older than 50 years of age, have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations or if you had radiation therapy to your chest. If you have dense breasts, a personal or family history of breast cancer or if you started your menstrual period prior to the age of 12, you may also be at an increased risk for breast cancer.

You can reduce your risk for breast cancer if you get enough physical activity and maintain a healthy weight. The American Heart Association’s guidelines for physical activity are 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or a combination of the two. Aerobic activity is anything that increases your heart rate, such as walking, cycling or swimming.

Diagnosing a Breast Cyst vs. Tumor

If you feel a lump in your breast, your provider will likely order a mammogram to help determine whether it’s a cyst or a tumor.

A traditional mammogram is an X-ray image of your breast. To take a mammogram, your specialist will place each breast in between two metal plates that will flatten them, and then the X-ray machine will take images of each breast from the top and the side. Mammograms are generally painless, but you may feel discomfort or pressure from the plates.

A 3D mammogram takes multiple images as the machine moves in an arc over each breast. The images are then compiled on a computer to get a more detailed view of the inside of the breast.

If your mammogram comes back abnormal, your provider might then order a diagnostic mammogram or a breast ultrasound.

A diagnostic mammogram uses a higher level of radiation than a traditional or 3D mammogram to get a more detailed view of the area of concern.

A breast ultrasound uses sound waves to provide a picture of the inside of the breast. Healthcare providers often use a breast ultrasound to determine whether a lump is a cyst or a tumor because an ultrasound can determine whether the suspicious area is solid or filled with fluid. Breast ultrasounds are painless, but you may be asked to change positions during the exam.

Breast Cancer Screening

Current breast cancer screenings guidelines from the American Cancer Society are:

  • Women aged 40 to 44 have the option of annual breast cancer screening.
  • Women aged 45 to 44 should have annual mammograms.
  • Women ages 55+ can continue with annual mammograms or switch to getting a mammogram every other year.

Women who are in good health and have a life expectancy of 10 or more years should continue getting screening mammograms.

Your healthcare provider can help you determine when you should start breast cancer screening and how often you should have it done.

Schedule your annual mammogram at River’s Edge Hospital & Clinic.


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